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Sermon for the Ascension of our Lord

Ephesians 1:15-23

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Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Christ’s ascension is probably one of our least developed areas of theology.  Of course, we confess creedally that He ascended into heaven, but perhaps have a less than full understanding of why that’s important.  In that regard we’re not much worse off than the disciples here who clearly don’t understand what is going on.  “Lord are you going to restore the Kingdom to Israel now?”  Of course it could be worse.  As Jesus ascends into heaven, the disciples might be tempted to believe that they are, quite literally, being left in the dust.  We can get Christ’s ascension all wrong and have Him locked up at the Father’s right hand and unable to be here with us down in the dust.  But far too often we simply fail to understand how Christ’s ascension has anything to do with us.  We fail to understand the nature and the power of Christ’s active rule in the world even now and what that means for us.  Christ’s ascension is a good thing for us because like all things He did, was born, suffered, died was buried and then raised, He does these things for us, that is, for our benefit.

The Church celebrates the Ascension of our Lord as His coronation.  As Jesus returns to the right hand of the Father, He returns to His heavenly throne where He rules as King of the Universe.  When Jesus was raised in His glorified body, He was no longer bound to His state of humiliation.  When we say that Jesus ascended into heaven we say He now sits at the right hand of God and He now takes back the power and authority that were His since before time began.  And as magnificent and glorious is our Lord’s ascension, He is not far off in heaven.  He is with us who remain bound by time and place.  Bodily ascended into heaven, He is still ever and always, true God and true man, head of the Church in heaven and present with us here in Word and Water and Supper.  Our confessions clearly teach, “The received human nature in Christ has and retains its natural, essential properties. But over and above these, through the personal union with the Deity, and afterward through glorification, Christ’s human nature has been exalted” (FC SD VIII 12).  Jesus ascended back to his rightful place in heaven both fully dive and still fully human.  This is how we still hear Him and see Him and how He still rules by grace and this is why we celebrate the ascension.

To add to our understanding we have this reading from Ephesians which, as far as we know was not written by Paul as an explanation of the ascension but it sure does seem to work out that way.  Remember the ascension happens 40 days after Easter and Pentecost and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit is in 10 days so we’re sort of caught now in this in between time when Christ has ascended and yet the Spirit has not yet been poured out.  I don’t know if you ever feel this way, but I sure have felt like I’m in between things.  Mostly the whole of my twenties but even now, sometimes, I get this feeling that everything will be better in a year or in three years.  Paul has something to say to people who feel this way.  15 For this reason, because I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, 16 I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers.”  That’s comforting.  It’s always comforting to know that someone is praying for you, isn’t it?  And what is Paul praying for you?  “[T]hat the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him.”  This opening section from Ephesians helps to explain our Lord’s ascension and comforts us and strengthens our faith.

Our faith is strengthened by this good news but it also comes coupled with a subtle and potential risk, particularly for the insincere heart.  This Good News is the preaching of God’s pure grace, free and unmerited.  When we hear that God created the world and sent His Son to earth to suffer and die in our place, we hear nothing but goodness and mighty deeds of the almighty God done for us, given to us by pure grace alone.  Today when a preacher preaches this way about nothing but the pure goodness of God toward us in Christ, impious and shameless hearts willfully twist the grace of God into a green light for anything goes.  “Hey, we live by grace don’t we?  So let’s keep on sinning so that we can get more grace!”  They forget Paul’s strong admonition in his letter to the Romans, “May it never be!” And instead, live as if they can do whatever they please.  This is certainly not the intent of our Father Creator and our Savior who gives the Spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him.

“But what will keep everyone from being too lax and idle?”  Ironically, it is the preaching of the grace of God, not our reliance on our works, even our faith, that can save us.  Paul preaches it here to the Ephesians, that all believers may know “what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, 19 and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might 20 that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places.”

This is why we are here tonight.  We are not here for Christ’s sake.  He is no less in power and glory if we fail to acknowledge it.  No, today we are here to listen to the message again that Christ has ascended in power for our comfort and for our benefit.  We are here not so that we can hide behind God’s grace for us in Christ for the purpose of continuing in sin, but rather to that we may rejoice in the power of God revealed in His powerful and mighty acts for us and be strengthened in faith and love for others.

The center of this section, and the center of Paul’s run on sentence here is about the power of Jesus Christ for believers, power that comes as a result of God’s working on our behalf through Christ.  The structure of the grammar here is actually kind of important.  Paul piles up four synonyms in phrases, the “surpassing greatness of the power of God, according to the operation of the strength of His might.”  If for Paul, the death of Jesus was the ultimate demonstration of the love of God, “[B]ut God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us,”  (Rom 5.8)  then, the resurrection of Jesus was the ultimate demonstration of God’s power. “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” (Rom 6.4)  (NICNT Bruce)

Too often we fail to see this power and we fail to tap into it.  Instead we lust for other powers.  How we long to be able to heal sickness or end poverty or even stop oppression.  We want to set the world straight according to our own ideas of how it should be and would that it we had done it already.  And we fail to realize our limited nature our inability to see anything for what it truly is.  Modern man has been on the planet for millennia and it is just in the past twenty years that we have begun to understand how vast the universe truly is.  The Hubble space telescope has given us glimpses into the far reaches, to the very edge of the universe showing us that those little specks of light previously only barely seen with less powerful telescopes and once thought to be stars were in fact entire galaxies larger than our own.  We are still just now coming to grips with the largeness of the created universe.   How much greater a challenge it is to begin to comprehend the infinities of God.  The power we have been given, the power worked in us through Christ, putting sin to death, dying a rising again, is power hidden from the world, power they don’t even have the ability to see, and power we fail far too often to tap into.  Jesus reigns in all power and authority and we live under His authority and He has given us access to that great power but it comes to us in very ordinary ways.  God is gracious to us even in the ways he deigns to deal with us.  Because are so limited and we cannot even begin to understand the ineffable infinity of God, God deals with us by using the ordinary things of life and attaching to them His promise and blessing.  Through the Word and through Baptism and the Lord’s Supper the power with which God works in the lives of believers is the same power by which He raised Christ from the dead and lifted Him back to the throne in heaven at His right hand.  The Gospel itself then is the power of God unto salvation.  (Rom 1:16)  Baptism is the dying and rising with Christ.  The Lord’s Supper a way for God to commune with us, be with us always “even unto the end of the age.”  Too often we think these things mere symbols or human rituals.  God has said otherwise in order that we be blessed by Him in simple ways we can all comprehend.

Probably the worst way we can view the ascension is that Jesus has left us in the dust to fend for ourselves.  Even if that view takes more of a “God is in his heaven and all is right with the world,” type flavor, it’s still wrong-headed and leads to a wrong heart toward God.  Jesus is not locked up in heaven at the right hand of God.  Where is the right hand of God?  Is that a locality a heavenly geographical locus from where Christ cannot leave?  Or is the right hand of God a figure for the power of God for the sake of His own?  I can tell you how Luther and the early reformers read it.  Christ is not locked away in heaven far from us, but rather He is fully and really present wherever two or three are gathered together in His name and He is surely where He says He is when He says this is my body and this is my blood.  Take a look at how the scene is described.  Jesus does not ascend into the heavens like a rocket ship getting smaller and smaller until He is just a speck and then we can’t see him any longer.  No, Jesus is raised up and then a cloud comes and Jesus is hidden from sight.  Any student of the Bible knows that God dwells in cloud, whether its cloud and fire on Mount Sinai or a pillar of cloud by day or even the cloud that enveloped Jesus on the Transfiguration Mount.  God is not far off and disinterested but very near, just behind that cloud.

Well, we’ve spent a little time, meditating on Christ’s ascension and I pray that meditation is profitable for you and has led to a fuller understanding of what we believe when we say, “He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father and He shall come again to judge the living and dead.”  Jesus’ kingdom is obviously not of this world and yet He rules already this world as His kingdom has come into it for our benefit and the benefit of all believers.  And he rules in power but not in ineffable, unapproachable power but rather in ordinary and very welcoming ways.  Jesus hasn’t left us in the dust but rather is with us wherever His Word is read and preached and His sacraments are administered according to His establishment of them.  He’s not locked up in heaven but soon to be really with us in resurrected, glorified body and blood given and shed for the forgiveness of our sins.  And he has done it all, as He did all things, for us, by grace.  Amen.

Christ is risen.  He is risen indeed.  Alleluia.

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